Leonowens, Anna (c. 1831–1914)

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Leonowens, Anna (c. 1831–1914)

English governess to the children of the king of Siam (Thailand) during the 1860s, who brought many reforms to his kingdom, fought against the oppressiveness of polygamy and the harem system, wrote several books on harem life, and gained international renown as the principal character in The King and I. Born either Anna Harriette Edwards on November 6, 1831, in India or Anna Harriette Crawford on November 5, 1834, in Caernarvon, Wales, depending on the account; died in 1914; daughter of either a Private Edwards or a Captain Crawford, who died in military service, and a mother who may have been Anglo-Indian; educated in England until she returned to India, at age 14; married Thomas Leon Owens, on December 25, 1849 (died May 1859); children: Selina (b. 1851) and a second child, both of whom did not survive; Avis (b. 1854); Louis (b. 1855).

Widowed (1859); traveled to Siam, where she served as governess to the children and wives of the royal family (1862–67); published The Romance of the Harem and other books which appeared as Siamese Harem Life and The Romance of Siamese Harem Life; lectured in later years to support herself; immortalized by the publication of Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon (1944), which became the basis for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and movie The King and I.

In 19th-century England, one of the few respectable professions open to women was that of governess. A governess was required to be a woman of gentle birth, because in theory her social status was equal to her employer's. Governesses were usually hired to instruct upper-class female children, as few schools for girls existed, although sometimes they taught young boys as well. Life as a governess could be relatively easy or very difficult depending on circumstances. In some cases, the governess was a virtual member of the family; in others, she received less consideration than a servant. Women chose to become governesses for a variety of reasons, though poverty often played a role. The death of a father or a husband might alter a woman's economic status and require her to seek employment. Daughters of the clergy, of army or navy officers, or of any member of the gentry were acceptable candidates. In 1850, there were some 20,000 governesses in England. English governesses were sought after as status symbols. Throughout the world, these women educated generations of young people.

One of the most famous governesses in the British tradition was Anna Leonowens, who spent five years as teacher to the children and wives of the king of Siam (modern-day Thailand), influencing their country in its early years of exposure to the West. Her story is complex because she probably reinvented her past in order to satisfy the strict Victorian code for employment as a governess.

The reinvention began with her alleged parentage. According to Leonowens' own account, she was born in Caernarvon, Wales, on November 5, 1834, the daughter of a captain in the army named Crawford; when she was six years old, the family sailed for India, where her father died in active military service. Accounts that are probably more factual establish that she was born in India on November 6, 1831, the second daughter of a poor army sergeant named Edwards, and a mother who may have been the child of an Anglo-Indian marriage, making her own heritage racially mixed. Her father died three months after Anna was born, and her mother married another soldier, a corporal, who was soon demoted to private. Anna and her sister, Eliza, were sent to England at a very young age to be educated, and returned to India as teenagers.

There are two distinct versions of Leonowens' teenage years as well. By her own account she met a Reverend Mr. George Percy Badger after her return to India at age 14. Since life with her mother and stepfather was uncongenial, she accepted an invitation to accompany the Badgers on a tour of the Levant. According to this version, Badger was a distinguished orientalist, who taught her Arabic and engaged a tutor to teach her Persian. According to the more titillating version, the 30-year-old Mr. Badger had no wife, and Anna's travels with him were unchaperoned.

Records establish that Anna married Thomas Leon Owens on Christmas Day, 1849, just after turning 18. The couple had a daughter, Selina, born in India in 1851, who seems not to have survived; a second child, possibly born in Australia, also did not live. Avis was probably born in 1854, and Louis in 1855.

Thomas Leon Owens died in May 1859 in Malaya (Malaysia), at age 32. His occupation was listed at the time as "hotel master" in Penang, one of the British straits settlements along with Singapore and Malacca. On the death certificate his name appeared as Thomas Leonowens. It is not known if the alteration was made then for the first time, but it is the form of the name that his widow adopted, and thus entered history as Anna Leonowens.

All the discrepancies described above are probably rooted in the needs of a woman suddenly thrust on her own to conform to the strictest Victorian standards of behavior. Within the hierarchy of the British class system, for instance, her opportunities as the daughter of a "Captain Crawford," a gentleman of respectable family, would be greatly increased over the daughter of a "Private Edwards." Although she was a bright, well-educated woman, the identification with lower-class origins would have kept her from the post of governess in any household, much less in the king of Siam's.

In racial terms, it was a common practice for unmarried soldiers stationed in the far reaches of the British Empire to marry local women. Around 1862, a niece of Leonowens married an Anglo-Indian, a member of the class referred to as "Coloured Englishmen," and one child of that marriage, Anna's great-nephew, William, became the famous movie star Boris Karloff. No one knows whether or not Anna Leonowens' racial heritage was mixed, but a wish to avoid prejudice may well explain why she chose Wales rather than India as her place of birth.

The alteration of other details may have been an attempt to cover up her earlier sexual indiscretions. In terms of British social acceptability, traveling with George Badger as an unmarried woman was the height of folly, and although there is no hint of scandal in Leonowens' later life, her youthful indiscretions would have prevented her from being hired in any respectable capacity, and certainly as a teacher of the young. As a widow and sole support of her two children, remolding her life for the sake of obtaining work, even the change in her name, may have been a way of wiping the slate clean. Looked at from this perspective, the alterations of her history seem practical, sensible, and in a sense courageous.

In March 1862, Anna Leonowens sailed with her son, Louis, then about seven years old, from Singapore to Bangkok on the steamer Chao Phya. She was slated to take a position as the governess to the children of the king of Siam, particularly Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, who was nine years old, a good age to learn English. The new governess was also charged with introducing English culture to the mothers of the princes and princesses, and to other members of the king's harem.

Siam's King Mongkut had been born in 1804, and although Europe had so far had little effect on the culture of his country, he had a personal fascination with the West. In his childhood there had been no formal provision for his succession to the throne upon his father's death, and an elder half brother had become king while Mongkut entered the Buddhist priesthood, an experience that deeply affected his perception of the world. As a sincere student of Buddhist teaching, he followed the daily practice of Buddhist priests in begging for their food, an act of humility that brought him into close contact with his people and opened his eyes to a new world. Frequent pilgrimages taught him more about his country, and in 1837 the royal monk had become abbot of a Buddhist monastery, a position he held for 14 years, until he was made king in 1851.

While a monk, Mongkut had studied English with Christian missionaries. Since no Siamese-English dictionary existed, words had to be translated from Siamese into ancient Pali and then into English, a difficult and convoluted process that may account for the king's highly original English. He studied history, geography, physics, chemistry, mathematics and astronomy, and regularly read books and newspapers in English;

he even installed a printing press, the first of its kind in Siam outside the walls of a mission.

As king, Mongkut's intention was to modernize Siam while preventing its colonization by a European power, a goal which he would achieve during his reign (1851–68). The employment of Anna Leonowens was part of his plan: her duties were cultural and intellectual but not religious. She was to teach English to the members of his harem but not convert them to Christianity. Anna was not the first Western governess in the royal harem; she had been preceded by Mrs. Mattoon, Mrs. Jones, and Mrs. Bradley, all of whom lost their positions because of their attempts to proselytize for Christianity.

Leonowens and her son were installed in Nang Harm, a small walled city of about 9,000 people, which included an enormous harem. Inside this enclosure, Nang Harm had wide avenues, graceful houses, parks, flower gardens, shops, and apartments on small crowded streets. The inhabitants were members of the nobility as well as seamstresses, gardeners, cooks and other servants. Most women and children lived there in slavery, although it should be pointed out that as much as 75% of the entire Siamese population, male as well as female, were then considered to be slaves. In terms of their culture, slavery usually meant an obligation to another individual rather than harsh servitude, and while harems in the Mideast were guarded by eunuchs or castrated males, Siamese harems were guarded by women or Amazons. In Nang Harm, the standard of living was quite high, but the harem was a golden cage, restricting the lives of its inhabitants.

The king's harem was a unique world, inaccessible to Westerners and even to most Siamese, but it also acted as a kind of glue, holding the entire country together. The harem was so large that almost everyone had a relative residing with the king. Proximity to the throne was more a matter of perception than of reality, however, since some members of the harem rarely met the king, much less gave birth to his children.

Some aspects of Leonowens' position in the harem are open to speculation; clearly, she was more than just a governess to his children. At a time when Siam was entering into many new international business agreements, she describes part of her job as helping the king with his correspondence and serving as a sounding board. Mongkut corresponded with many Western leaders, including Queen Victoria and President Abraham Lincoln, so it is likely that he consulted Leonowens about Western attitudes and customs. Certainly the king's proximity to the European woman was unusual, and his interest in the British no doubt ensured a unique relationship, but the two were never on especially intimate terms.

Called "Mem" by her pupils, Leonowens taught 20–25 princesses and princes of royal blood. Her schoolroom was in the Temple of the Mothers of the Free, a name that belied the actual circumstances, but underscored her purpose as governess. She was an excellent teacher, but her pupils had little concept of the world outside Siam, and she was sometimes faced with unusual obstacles, as when they simply refused to believe in snow, for example. Faced with such disbelief, "Mem" sometimes resorted to going to the king, who could enforce his word inside as well as outside the classroom as law. She also learned a great respect for her pupils. She describes one instance when a snake fell from the vaulted roof onto a chart across her table. While she screamed in horror, her pupils quietly watched until it had crawled away, then clustered around their teacher with shouts of joy that she had been favored by the gods, because a snake was considered a good omen.

There is some evidence that Leonowens' teaching greatly influenced the heir apparent, Prince Chulalongkorn, who abolished slavery during his reign and began other social reforms. When he met Leonowens in London 30 years later, he told her that he had kept his promise that he would rule over a free Siam.

Some of Leonowens' observations about life in the harem have been criticized as wild and fanciful. Others criticized her for relaying stories which had occurred in previous reigns as if they had happened in the 1860s. She was accused of being "on the fringes of reality, often escaping into make-believe." But Leonowens' objective in her later books and lectures was less to provide a detailed social history than to document an inhumane social custom which degraded women, a point many critics have overlooked. Women in the harem were slaves and playthings, a status she found intolerable. Although some of the atrocities she cites may have happened in earlier reigns, no one disputes that Siamese women suffered. Leonowens may not be an unimpeachable historical witness, but she is important as one of the few Europeans ever to experience life in a royal harem.

After Leonowens left Siam in 1867, she wrote The Romance of the Harem which appeared later as Siamese Harem Life and The Romance of Siamese Harem Life. She lectured widely, gaining a modest income to support herself, but her own accounts never had the renown that her life achieved after the appearance of Anna and the King of Siam, based on Leonowens' books, written by Margaret Landon in 1944. Landon's book became the basis for the musical The King and I, written by the American composing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, which remained true to Leonowens' perspective on the treatment of women.

In her own life, Anna Leonowens was something of an adventurer, overcoming many limitations placed on her by her culture to become a highly articulate woman. She loved people, including the absolute monarch who employed her and the women under his domination, whom she praised for their grace and courage. In The King and I, Anna Leonowens becomes the king's friend and equal. Her audacity changes a kingdom. Although this may be the stuff of fiction, it sums up the spirit of the actual woman who educated a generation of royalty important to the evolution of their country into modern Thailand, and helped to free them from rigid traditional bonds.


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Behrman, Cynthia F. "Governesses," in Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Sally Mitchell. CT: Garland Publishing, 1988, pp. 337–338.

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Leonowens, Anna. The Romance of the Harem. Edited by Susan Morgan. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.

Leonowens, Anna Harriette. Siamese Harem Life. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1953.

Moffat, Abbot Low. Mongkut, the King of Siam. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1961.

Renton, Alice. Tyrant or Victim? A History of the British Governess. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991.

Vicinus, Martha, ed. Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1972.

related media:

Anna and the King of Siam (128 min. film), starring Irene Dunne , Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell , Lee J. Cobb, and Gale Sondergaard , directed by John Cromwell, screenplay by Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson , based on the book by Margaret Landon, Fox, 1946.

Anna and the King, film starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, 20th Century-Fox, 1999.

The King and I, musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, opened on Broadway at the St. James' Theater, New York, 1951.

The King and I (133 min. film), starring Deborah Kerr , Yul Brynner, and Rita Moreno , directed by Walter Lang, based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical which was based on the Landon book, costumes by Irene Sharaff , Fox, 1956.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia